Frances Ha may very well be Noah Baumbach's best film. On a personal level, I enjoyed it more than any of his other movies, but I think taken as a whole it amounts to his most skillful project to date. The Squid and the Whale is terrific, yet because it relies so much on Baumbach's own life, I have a hard time accepting it as a truly perfected piece of work. Margot in the Wedding is bold in its uncompromising insistence on depicting unlikable characters in painfully awkward or unpleasant situations. And yet once again Baumbach is leaning on something very specific, which limits where he can take his material. Greenberg had intelligence and good acting, but it lacked both charm and grace. It wasn't a bad movie, but it suffered from Baumbach's conflicted interest of following in the footsteps of Margot and trying to do something new, namely go to town on a single character.
With Frances Ha though, Baumbach maintains his honesty about people yet also manages a sense of whimsy and humor we haven't seen from him before. Frances, played by the ever-delightful Greta Gerwig, is Baumbach's greatest creation to date, a character with the quirks he loves in people, yet also with a touch of the familiar that he seems to have been afraid to depict in his characters until now. As a result, Frances comes across as truly unique and unpredictable, but also likable and understandable. When she runs from her date at a restaurant to get cash from an ATM (her debit card doesn't work), we realize we're dealing with a Baumbach character who is trying to be liked. It's a wonderful thing.
This is also Baumbach's most relaxed film. It's beautifully paced, and the fact that he's not concerned with anything especially profound (the one scene where Frances, drinking wine at a friend's house, offers an insight about life, she ends up largely revealing a feeling rather than an idea) allows him to focus on the everyday problems of young, poor socialites in New York. At times it plays like a Whit Stillman movie, like The Last Days of Disco in reverse. Instead of dealing with yuppies, he's focused on financially troubled artists in the city. And though the lack of a driving plot may invite some to label it as a self-conscious indie, the result is really more like a Woody Allen movie (it could even be seen as a modern day Manhattan, especially because he loves George Delerue the same way Allen does Gershwin). Bambaugh, writing for the first time with Gerwig, infuses the script with original, funny dialogue. His characters' insistence on witticisms and playfulness negates some of the movie's realism, yet adds to its almost contagious sense of light-hearted fun in a messy, complicated city.